Lately I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the size of people’s eyes. Not just the eyes themselves, but also the area around it: the bags under the eye, unusually heavy lids, prominent brows and all the rest. Strangers, I stare at furtively, behind sunglasses or in sideways glances. With friends and relatives I can make direct eye contact, but too long can create uncomfortable intimacy. And it’s not intimacy I want; I’m measuring. Gathering data.
All the while I ask myself: what is a large eye? A small eye? What is a normal sized eye?
Two hundred years ago, a young Austrian medical student found himself with the same question. He was struggling in school, and he was jealous of those among his class who so easily excelled at memorization. In interminable lectures he watched these men trying to figure out what made them different from him, why it was so easy for them to remember and so difficult for him.
It was the eyes, he decided. They all seemed to have larger eyes.
This young medical student was Franz-Joseph Gall, and this simple, odd insight would within two decades bloom into an unstoppable cultural force. Convinced of this causal connection, Gall began to look for other correlations between mental attributes and physical appearance. “Proceeding from reflection to reflection,” he would later write, “from observation to observation, it occurred to me that, if memory were made evident by external signs, it might be so likewise with other talents or intellectual faculties.” Gall set out looking for other correspondences between physical appearance and personality, and from then on, “all the individuals who were distinguished by any quality or faculty, became the object of my special attention, and of systematic study as to the form of the head.”
Gall’s obsession drove him to search for a visible means of discovering the brain’s secrets: a process he called “cranioscopy”—what became colloquially known as “bump reading” and what his pupil Johann Spurzheim would rechristen “phrenology.” It was predicated on a few simple principles. First, Gall theorized that, all other things being equal, size determines propensity: A bigger brain implies a higher capacity for intelligence. This was, Gall asserted, equally true of different parts of the brain—if the segment of the brain devoted to memory was larger in one individual than in another, then it stood to reason that the former would have a higher capacity for memory. Second, it was well known that the skull, like all bones, is initially malleable upon birth, only gradually becoming more rigid. So it stood to reason, Gall theorized, that the ridges and folds of the brain might imprint themselves on the bone when it was still pliable and that one could come to know the brain by understanding these imprints. From this apparent insight Gall began to explore the possibility that the brain’s workings might be made visible by the patterns it made on the skull. Each part of the skull became assigned a different aspect of personality—mirthfulness in the temples, sexual propensity at the base of the skull, and so on. With precise measurements of the size of each of these areas, Gall theorized, you could develop an entire picture of an individual’s character.
One’s identity, in other words, was written in the bumps of one’s head.
The rest of the story of phrenology is well known enough: blossoming into full scale quackery, it became a juggernaut of an industry unto itself, even as it was more and more discredited by legitimate science. By the twentieth century it was all but abandoned, but in the nineteenth century it was perhaps the most popular mode of understanding the human brain. In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman proclaimed, “the anatomist chemist astronomer geologist phrenologist spiritualist mathematician historian and lexicographer are not poets, but they are the lawgivers of poets and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem.” It seems odd that the one profession on this list that actually purports to deal with who we are, why we’re motivated to do what we do, and how we define ourselves, is the one profession that seems so startlingly out of place nowadays. But it makes some sense that the rest of the disciplines on Whitman’s list are hard sciences, since phrenology presents itself as the hard science of the mind, a system of objective measurements and offers, in its own way, a certain amount of rigor. Phrenology has none of the messiness of psychoanalysis or modern therapy; the phrenologist doesn’t care about your dreams, needs no narratives about your past, your abusive parents, your failed aspirations. Everything the phrenologist needs is right there, laid out in a perfect, analytic grid. Your mind revealed in the same topographic language the lexicographer would use.
For all the ridiculousness of such a premise, there is a simple elegance in such a map of identity, where everything is so neatly arranged, so perfectly knowable. I’m not the only one who’s drawn to the trappings of Gall’s pseudoscience—lately, phrenology charts have popped up everywhere, from CD covers to bicycle helmets. They’re a graphic designer’s dream: iconic, ironic, eye-catching, nostalgic. But as much as layout artists may fetishize Gall’s chart nowadays, no one is eager to revisit the science. I’m not bothered that phrenology—with its dubious method and explicit racism, sexism, and all the rest—has disappeared. Good riddance. But what intrigues me is that such a ubiquitous measure of personality has literally disappeared off the face of the earth in less than a century. Compare the number of people who can read Egyptian hieroglyphs or ancient Greek to the number of practicing phrenologists—there are dead languages and there are dead languages, and the language of phrenology is about as dead as it gets.
And this is where my problem begins. For the past year, I’ve been trying to teach myself phrenology, this now-dead art. At first I assumed this would be a fairly easy task, far easier than reconstructing Egyptian hieroglyphs from the Rosetta Stone. After all, the relics of phrenology are visible everywhere; libraries and online resources still preserve the literature. It’s everywhere in popular memory—the pseudoscience to end all pseudosciences, the template for every self-help scheme from The Secret to the Master Cleanse. How hard could it be to learn it?
It was easy enough to track down what I thought would have been the Holy Grail: Lorenzo Fowler’s “Self-Instructor in phrenology.” Lorenzo and his brother Orson did far more to popularize phrenology in the United States than anyone else, selling their now-iconic busts and performing thousands of readings out of their New York headquarters. The title says it all; who needs phrenological experts, when the book promises to let you teach yourself?
“To TEACH LEARNERS those organic conditions which indicate character is the first object of this manual,” the preface boldly proclaims. “And to render it accessible to all, it condenses facts and conditions, rather than elaborates arguments because to expound Phrenology is its highest proof states laws and results, and leaves them upon their naked merits; embodies recent discoveries, and crowds into the fewest words and pages just what learners need to know, and hence requires to be STUDIED rather than merely read. ‘Short, yet clear,’ is its motto. Its analysis of the faculties and numerous engravings embody the results of the very extensive observation and experience of the Authors.”
The library copy I acquired, an original from 1850, even has its first owner’s chart, filled out by Lorenzo Fowler himself, with each region given a number on a scale from 1 to 7. His pencil marks faint but still visible; I found myself wondering what a graphologist would make of them. But as tantalizing as Lorenzo’s presence in these pages is, it is also the problem: the book’s owner did not phrenologize himself. As the preface goes on to explain, the actual work is done by the examiner, in this case, Fowler: “The examiner will mark the power, absolute and relative, of each function and faculty, by placing a figure, dot, or dash on a line with the name of the organ marked, and in the column headed ‘large,’ or ‘small,’ according to the size of the organ marked, while the printed figure in the square thus marked refers to those pages in the book where, under the head ‘large,’ ‘small,’ etc., will be found description of the character of the one examined in respect to that organ….”
This is the problem—the Fowlers don’t teach you how to read heads, they teach you how to interpret their readings. And the bust they sold is great for learning where the various propensities of Amativeness, Philoprogenitiveness, Adhesiveness, Inhabitiveness, Alimentiveness, and all the rest are located, but it’s useless for separating a “3” from a “4.” You still need a phrenologist, one who knows how to classify the size of each bump.
In all the phrenological literature I’ve scoured, there’s not one description of bump size in objective terms, no measurements that can be applied to a contemporary head. How does one even objectively measure such bumps? In centimeters? In degrees? What is the “normal” shape of the head, from which one could single out a noteworthy bump? Once proprietary trade secrets, now these secrets of identity are likely lost for good. As with any dying language, without a living community practicing phrenology, its mysteries have disappeared from the storehouse of knowledge.
So I spend my time trying to reconstruct this data, taking my measurements, looking for enough statistical data to form a working knowledge of an elusive “average” by which to judge the remainder of humanity. Not unlike the work of the Egyptologist, there’s an archeological aspect to this work, a reconstitution of a forgotten discourse. I have no dreams of spreading the bump-reading gospel. The question for me has never been: how do we resurrect phrenology? Rather, the question is: what does it say about our ideas of identity when a “science” (however dubious) can go from such importance to the dustbin of history, in such a short space of time? The disappearance of phrenology suggests that the study of identity isn’t like biology—it doesn’t necessarily move inexorably forward, building on past discoveries. Each age has its own ideas about identity, and its truths are always in flux.